18.02.2010 - 26.02.2010
We have decided to stay put in Pondicherry for a few days, time to get our bearings and ease our way into India, and because the Kailash Guest House we found is great, especially after our first night at the very average Mothers Guest House.
Our only complaint at Kailash was dirty mats on the floor and urinal balls. There were a hand full of small urinal balls left in basin and shower - they would make Nee sneeze. So every day we would throw them away, and every day house keeping would come along and put new ones back. Everyday we would roll up the dirty mats so they were out of the way (the floor was much cleaner than the mats), and everyday house keeping would unroll them again. We didn’t want to travel too far from the Pondicherry area either, because at New Years we pick up our motorbikes from just up the road when the real adventures will begin. A week based in the same place gave us an opportunity to figure out the simple things like getting cash from ATM’s, getting a mobile phone sorted, which food is which, get an idea what route we’ll follow on the bikes…
There is definitely a clear divide between the French and Indian side of Pondicherry, and it’s a stinky open canal - one of those hold your breath moments. But the town is quite different also. We hired push bikes for a couple of days which was the perfect way to get around and see town, you can cover good distance and still feel part of the action, only drawback was a sore arse at the end of the day, must be a bit out of practise.
The French side has wide clean French named streets, grand buildings (comparatively anyway, its certainly no Paris), a beach-front promenade and bakeries (mmm hot chocolate croissants, thank you very much!). Yet the Indian side of town with its narrow, busy and noisy streets was much more interesting, even the cows preferred this side of town. Outside houses and shops, people used white chalk or salt to draw the amazing and elaborate decorative patterns on the foot path or street. Some were clearly done by blokes, but the rest were really good. As we got closer to Christmas, the patterns got more detailed, by Christmas many were filled with colour. They looked amazing, and were a really good distraction from the terrible state of the footpaths in general.
Pondicherry is not a place you can walk around without watching where you put your feet. Paths are uneven at best and just full of holes over deep drains at worst as Nee found out by stepping into one in the dark skinning her toes and shin. Ouchies!!! It is clearly safer to dance with the traffic on the road than attempt walking on the footpath.
It was interesting to see a few of the different faces of India throughout the day. In the early morning, 5-6am, you would often get groups (generally men) dressed in white marching along the street singing and chanting on their way to a temple. It was a nice way to wake up to the faint chants and bells ringing, gradually getting louder then disappearing off in to the dawn gloom again. Next come the horns. You can sleep through the chanting and even the singing from a local mosque, but there is no ignoring the horns. They were pretty relentless from 8 in the morning till 8 at night. Interestingly, there never appears as much traffic as it sounds. During the cool of the evening the city seems to come alive with shops and people, it has a different energy and sound, there‘s as much human noise as traffic noise. The streets are packed, stalls appear from nowhere, there’s all sorts of food cooking in pots on the street. This is when the locals shop. Shopping is a bit of an experience. As I stood in a clothes shop waiting, waiting, waiting outside a change room, I noticed that it was mostly men doing the shopping and they were mostly assisted by other men when buying things like sarees. I can only imagine that the next day all the women receiving these sarees must be running back to the exchange counter. I was pretty much free to roam around where ever I wanted in which ever shop I chose, but Nee was shadowed by a shop assistant every step she took, not discreetly from a distance but right there two paces behind. It was quite funny to watch the dance unfold as Renee started to get annoyed by the close attention and would start cutting laps around the shop trying to lose her tail. But the shop assistants (perhaps that should be shop annoyers) knew all about this game and quickly succeeded in chasing Renee out of the shop. Finally when its late, after the shops have all closed and the cows have wandered home, there is a final face (or belly) to the town. Quite late one night I went with another guy from the guest house (a local) wandering in search of a shop selling water, the streets were dark, the sounds were strange. The poor and the homeless are congregated in locations around town and settled in for the night. It is a little confronting to see rows of people lining the street, sleeping side by side under whatever they have managed to get hold of. There were a lot of dogs running around howling and growling. When they got a little closer, the other fella promptly picked up a stick and a couple of rocks, it was, to be honest, a little bit scary. Needless to say, there were no more late night water runs after that.
Hotel Aristos was our favourite place to eat. They had a big menu, the food was good, a nice rooftop setting above the crowded shopping strip below and it was pretty close to home. We ate there often enough to start getting recognised, but that wasn’t too hard since I am so handsome (or maybe because there weren’t a whole lot of other white people in that part of town). (Renee- You mean he recognised the only guy he’d seen with big hairy side chops!) Given our Pondicherry location in French India, we had two foods at the top of our list, a plump spicy samosa, and a smooth creamy creme brulée requiring that perfect ‘crack’ to open up. Alas, during our stay in Pondicherry neither of these dishes came our way. Menus frequently teased us with possibility, but as we learned, menus appear to be a list of food rather than an available selection. Only too often we are told ‘no no, not available, fried rice or fried noodle?’
We did another day trip up to Mamallapuram, about 100km north of Pondicherry. There were two things to sort out on this trip, find somewhere to stay for a few days leading up to New Years and check up on the mechanic we were hiring the motorbikes from. After taking a bit of a punt and booking and paying for these bikes in advance over the internet, we still had a horrible feeling that the guy may not be genuine. The bus service that operates between Pondicherry and Chennai, the ECR (East Coast Road) Express, is awesome, though the buses may not be the most comfortable (built for little people I think). Buses run every 10 minutes or so, so if you can’t squeeze onto one bus you don’t have to hang around too long before you can try the next one. The biggest problem is not finding which bus to take (there is always someone to point you in the right general direction), but figuring out when to get off. We spend a good part of the trip scanning for road signs (there are not that many) telling us how far to go to Mamallapuram. Sure enough, when we get to our stop there are no signs, no bus stop, just a bend in the road and a few people and rickshaws hanging around. Mamallapuram is a very dusty and popular tourist town, its big attractions are lots of rock temples and carvings, and the beach. But we are not in tourist mode today, we’ve got business to attend to. We are pleased to come across Ganesh our motorbike mechanic as we walk into town. He is pleased to see us (and so he should be after all the money we sent him in good faith) and after a quick chat we are all seems to be well. We head on into town happy but with a few lingering doubts given the state of the bikes parked in front of his shop - but he’s a mechanic, so what can you expect, we can only wait and see what the new year brings. We find a nice hotel with a really nice looking swimming pool, happy to spend a little more as a treat for New Years (still only around $30 a night). Mamallapuram is pretty cruisey, so looking forward to a few lazy days here by the pool before taking off on the bikes. We learn something new about the buses on the trip back to Pondicherry, if possible get on where the bus leaves from, if not it will be full and you’ll probably be standing for a good part of the trip. We, and three other girls from Denmark who were not pushy enough, missed out on seats and were standing for a good part of the trip home. Though many Indians even with kids and baggage will insist on giving you available seats if they are getting off soon which was so nice.